When you’re pregnant, your diet ought to be balanced and nutritious—the right balance of consuming carbohydrates, proteins, and fats with a wide variety of fruits and vegetables.
In this article, we shall explore the foods, beverages, and other products that a pregnant woman should avoid to maintain a healthy pregnancy. I hope this quick summary will keep you informed of the kind of foods that could put you and your baby at risk. These are foods and drinks that you should stay away from or at least limit in your daily intake.
What are the USDA dietary guidelines?
The 2020-2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) provide a great outline of foods to eat and avoid throughout your life. These American food guidelines aim to keep everyone healthy throughout their lives, but they also specifically address pregnant women’s requirements.
Many countries provide similar guidelines that seem to agree on most recommendations. The Eat Well guide by the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) and the Australian dietary guidelines by the Department of Health are good examples.
Foods and drinks to avoid during pregnancy
During pregnancy, morning sickness, food cravings, and food aversions make it difficult for some women to achieve optimal dietary intake. And according to USDA nutrition guidelines, this should also be considered when you’re trying to make healthy food and beverage choices.
These are the top takeaways from the pregnancy food guidelines that you should look out for across your entire diet:
- Limit foods and beverages high in added sugar. Ideally, sugar should make up less than 10% of calories per day. This can sometimes be tricky because added sugars lurk in obvious places like cake and doughnuts and are hidden in unexpected places like salad dressing and “diet” products. This is particularly important if you’re at risk of gestational diabetes, which tends to come on in the 2nd trimester and peak in the 3rd trimester. Your care provider will screen you for gestational diabetes at your 1st antenatal appointment around 8-12 weeks of pregnancy.
- Replace saturated fats with unsaturated fats. Saturated fats should also make up around 10% of daily calories. Ideally, it would be best if you replaced them with unsaturated (polyunsaturated) fats. This is to minimize the risk of heart disease. Change to leaner cuts of meat, low-fat cheese, avocado, nuts, or seeds. Replace butter with olive, corn, sunflower, or peanut cooking oil. These offer a better ratio of polyunsaturated fats without changing the flavor of your food.
- Limit or reduce sodium intake. Too much sodium intake increases your risk of heart failure, stroke, kidney disease, and hypertension. Around 45% of adults in the USA are living with hypertension. The 2020-2025 report also found that pregnant women with higher salt intake levels were more likely to develop preeclampsia. Therefore, you should reduce dietary sodium levels to improve your blood pressure control and minimize the risk of preeclampsia.
What not to eat and drink while you’re pregnant is just as important. Some foods need to be cooked or prepared a certain way and others are best to avoid completely:
Meat, poultry, and wild game
Is red meat good for pregnancy? Is chicken good in pregnancy? Can I eat veal when pregnant? Let’s address these questions.
Beef, veal, and other red meat are very beneficial during pregnancy to keep your protein and iron levels high. Chicken and other poultry are also packed with protein and amino acids while being low in fat—making them a good staple while pregnant. All meat and poultry should be well cooked throughout and never eaten raw.
Cook pre-packed meats such as ham, salami, and hot dogs to kill harmful Listeria bacteria. Take extra care when having barbecues or grilled meats to ensure the burgers, sausages, and chicken are fully cooked.
Foods high in vitamin A to avoid in pregnancy include liver and liver products, which may cause congenital disabilities if consumed in extremely high quantities. It’s not a good idea to eat wild game meats as they may contain parasites or leftover lead.
Eating fish and seafood helps improve a fetus’ cognitive development. The USDA recommends 8-12 ounces of low-mercury fish weekly to help boost omega-3 consumption. However, foods high in mercury (methylmercury) can harm your developing babies’ brain and nervous system, so you should avoid them. High-mercury fish includes shark, swordfish, marlin, and king mackerel.
Additionally, you should limit oily fish (salmon, trout, mackerel, and herring) to 2 servings weekly and eat no more than 140 g of tuna fish per week. Never eat any seafood or shellfish raw during pregnancy as they contain harmful bacteria, viruses, and toxins. It’s also best to avoid prepackaged food that includes seafood or shellfish that you can not reheat (tuna salad, shrimp cocktail, or prawn salads).
Dairy and cheese
All dairy and cheese products should be made from pasteurized milk. Avoid mold-ripened cheeses (brie and camembert) as well as blue cheeses (danish blue and gorgonzola). If you enjoy unpasteurized cheeses or need to use them for a recipe, then you must heat them until they’re steaming hot. This will kill any Listeria or other harmful bacteria that may be present.
Alcohol is particularly harmful to a developing baby, so it’s best to avoid it during pregnancy and breastfeeding. It can lead to congenital disabilities, cognitive disability, and even fetal alcohol syndrome. Therefore it is not safe for you to drink any type or amount of alcohol during pregnancy.
If you need help to stop drinking or want to know more, you can find terrific resources online or consult your healthcare provider. If you had been consuming alcohol before you found out you were pregnant, try not to stress too much over it. But stop from this point forward.
Caffeine is found in several beverages, including tea, coffee, soda, energy drinks, chocolate, and some medications in varying amounts. When you consume caffeine, it may pass through the placenta to your unborn baby. For lactating moms, it’s found in breast milk.
While you don’t have to avoid caffeine altogether, you’re advised to consume low amounts of caffeine (less than 2-3 cups of coffee per day). More recent studies have suggested avoiding it altogether or never going above 200mg per day. This 200mg limit per day includes all sources of caffeine, from beverages to chocolates and medications.
Food safety in pregnancy
Food safety during pregnancy is even more pertinent as pregnant women and the unborn baby are more susceptible than the general population. The increased susceptibility in expectant mothers comes from the immune system changes that happen while you’re pregnant. You and your unborn baby are susceptible to listeriosis and toxoplasmosis.
- Listeria monocytogenes: It is bacteria often found in ready-to-eat foods (deli meats), unpasteurized raw milk, or raw milk products (soft cheeses). Studies show that 1 in 5 cases of listeriosis result in death and 1/3 of all cases happen during pregnancy. The result can cause miscarriage, premature delivery, stillbirth, severe sickness, or neonatal death.
- Toxoplasma gondii: A parasite commonly found in raw meat products, mainly raw lamb, pork, beef, and cat litter boxes. If you’re infected with toxoplasmosis, it can cause miscarriage as well as complications with the baby (hearing loss, blindness, and brain damage). It is therefore imperative to follow food hygiene standards discussed below and never eat raw meat.
- Other important food-borne pathogens: Salmonella bacteria from raw eggs, Campylobacter usually from cross-contamination of raw chicken or untreated water, and Escherichia coli (E. coli) in raw or undercooked meats.
Food safety tips
Food safety tips are essential for people of all ages to help avoid ingesting food-borne pathogens. Here’s what to do:
- Keep it clean. Always wash your hands, work surfaces, and utensils often in warm soapy water. Wash all fresh fruits and vegetables, including lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers, raw sprouts, and other salad vegetables sold on their own or as “prewashed” packages. You can use a clean vegetable brush to scrub the fruit or vegetable under warm running water. You should NOT wash meat, poultry, or eggs (especially commercially produced eggs) as they will splash and spread bacteria around your kitchen. Cook vegetables where possible.
- Don’t cross-contaminate. Keep foods such as fresh raw veggies away from raw or uncooked meats. Don’t use the same chopping board, mixing bowl, or spoon or even wash your hands near ingredients. Store raw meats away from any fruits or vegetables in the fridge and ensure that any leaking meat juices don’t contaminate items below them. Avoid any foods you suspect of being contaminated.
- Cook everything thoroughly. Ensure that you cook food fully at a temperature safe enough to kill any hidden pathogens. This includes poultry, meat, precooked meats such as deli meat and hotdogs, seafood (even precooked seafood), and eggs. Flour and the raw dough can contain E. coli, so you shouldn’t excessively handle or eat them. If you’re using either for cooking, wash hands and surfaces thoroughly after use. Avoid premade sandwiches or salads that may include fish, eggs, or deli meats.
- Refrigerate cooked foods as soon as possible. If you left food out for 2 hours or more, it might be unsafe to eat. This is particularly important in warmer climates where food will go bad quicker. It’s also important to thaw frozen foods in the refrigerator and not on the counter. Never taste food to test whether it’s safe to eat. If in doubt, throw it out.
- Only buy pasteurized products. Avoid any raw milk or products made from unpasteurized milk. Take caution when searching for safe pasteurized milk, yogurt, soft cheeses, and cream to avoid bacteria naturally present in raw milk.
Being pregnant is an incredible experience, but it also puts you in a position where you have to be more mindful of what you put into your body. That can be super hard, especially if you’re suffering from morning sickness.
The main takeaways are to ensure you keep everything clean, fully cooked, and avoid substances that may cause harm to the baby. Always try to eat nutrient-dense foods so that you have energy and your little one gets the best start in life.